CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Assistant Secretary of NCDES Pryor Gibson attributed 88 percent of $70 million in unemployment payments were handled by the company ID.me. Gibson did not make this assertion in his speech. Triad City Beat regrets the error.

The pepped-up modern jazz runs on a loop, a quick, reassuring little bop that doesn’t allow me to dwell too long on the reason I’m calling. The intro and the hook run for about a minute before an equally reassuring voice reminds me that my call will be answered in the order it was received. Then it starts again.

I’ve been on hold for an over an hour.

***

The reason I’m sitting here today, hypnotized by this mocking tune, is that I received a letter from the state’s unemployment division, the NC Department of Employment Security. “DETERMINATION OF OVERPAYMENT,” it threatens. It states that I was overpaid during the shutdown. No other details are provided besides the amount owed — to them, by me— aside from how to pay it off. It provides a cutoff date for when I can appeal, and options on how to do so, including one for “Fax.” I haven’t seen a fax machine since Myspace existed. The last time I utilized one was before 9/11. It does include the choice to call the customer-service number “if you have any questions.” So, here we are. Sanitized jazz eats at my soul.

I haven’t been on unemployment since September of 2020. When the world shut down two years ago, many of us in the service and hospitality industry were left in a precarious situation. Luckily, most of us out of work through no fault of our own were able to pay our bills, thanks to the emergency unemployment provided through the CARES Act.

***

The service industry caters to employees with multiple jobs. I’m no different. In March of 2020, I worked at a brewery and a dive bar, moonlighting as local help for concerts across the Carolinas. I look after an ailing parent. I help take care of the family farm. Everyone had things that needed doing. The emergency fund provided that.

I can name more than a hundred service-industry workers who rely on multiple sources of income just get by. These jobs, by and large, have no benefits or 401ks, no paid vacation nor health insurance. I’ve had service jobs that told us that we were expendable. We were. With NC being a “Fire-At-Will” state, doubly so. But not to worry! $600 a week staved off ruination for thousands of people.

Like many, I utilized the COVID funding. Many of us did, industry to industry, from bankers to part-time dishwashers. For many it was the only option they had. Not that it wasn’t difficult. Many of our readers remember what the system looked like. The long wait times, the website errors, the absolute surge into a system that was barely prepared to accommodate a quarter of those applying. We also remember that this was by design. The unemployment system, especially in NC, was supposed to be unwieldy, repetitive and prone to mistakes. Call it the “Bootstrap Repercussion.” They intentionally made it a nightmare to deal with, even before COVID. A recent audit from the Office of the State Auditor found that from Jan. 1-March 31 of 2020, the NCDES were not timely in the release of first payments to those on unemployment.

But that glorious day when you were approved? There aren’t too many feelings like that, that euphoria and sheer relief.

I danced. I never expected a letter to arrive almost two years to the day afterwards.

***

Approximately 1 hour and 28 minutes later, someone picks up and rouses me from my fever dream of risqué elevator music. Strangely enough, I was calm (a word of advice, please be nice to customer-service reps, this isn’t their fault, you should know this). The angel on the other end of the line was a professional and told me exactly how to appeal via email. I did so, and thanked them profusely.

Then I started to reach out to other bartenders and servers, and as it turns out, this is widespread, especially in the service industry and incomes based around cash.

I put out inquiries to colleagues to find that many have received similar demands to the letter I received. One bartender, a single parent of a disabled child, had a bill for $10,000. Another had two letters that totaled to $6,500. This issue is so widespread that a local bar owner even offered a template letter that was passed around like a chain letter, used by recipients to appeal and request a waiving of the amount due. To add to the frustration, the letters state that one can appeal on the NCDES website and gives explicit instructions on how to do so. If appeals aren’t sent by the designated date, the NCDES assumes that the balance is valid and will expect payment. The website option to file an appeal is nonexistent. There is no option to appeal on the NCDES website, despite the letter stating so. So, I contacted the NCDES.

Kerry McComber is the Chief Deputy for Performance and Policy at the Division of Employment Security. She assured me that there is an option to appeal on the NCDES website (there wasn’t, at least in my case) and that issues like mine were not widespread.

“Claimants may file their appeal through their online account, by fax, by email or by mail,” she said.

Pryor Gibson, the Assistant Secretary of the NCDES, said in a speech to state lawmakers in January of 2021 of the $70 million in overpayments, only 9 million, or 12 percent, were attributed to fraud. Gibson said that most of the overpayments occurred because of applicant error.

An already difficult system to navigate gets hit with a catastrophe and attempts to recoup losses up to two years down the line. Of the people I spoke to who had similar issues, four ignored it, four fought it and two received a letter saying that it was a clerical error. For those where a paycheck-to-paycheck existence is the only thing they know, it’s not surprising that they would receive demands for something they were told at the time: “It’s okay, you qualify, you’re gonna be alright.”

But we know that those who needed unemployment at the time are less likely to fight back. It’s a fishing expedition, and the pond is an inch deep and a mile wide.

Information on how to appeal a “Determination of Overpayment” claim can be found at  des.nc.gov.

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